I’m Sorry My Big Mouth Got You Fired
One mistake a mental health advocate should never make
I think you know this already, but I said what I said and did what I did, including writing the following, with the best of intentions. I never meant any harm to come your way in any fashion; I certainly did not intend on you losing your job. I hope you are flourishing and your family is well.
May you always see beauty where others do not,
Your bipolar friend,
He said he loved the colors. He said he loved the energy. And the flower garden out front? It transported him to another world, one that reminded him of his home in Puerto Rico because it was so welcoming and warm — he just wished he could see it when everything was in full bloom.
All of his words were kind and his compliments well received, but I couldn’t help but notice how quickly he changed from topic to topic, how his excitement climbed with each new piece of information.
He complimented the range of books on my shelf and we spoke of different philosophers. I was impressed with his intelligence, just as he said he was with mine. We discovered The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to be a common favorite book. He loved One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe even as much as I do. We couldn’t brag enough about magical realism.
But something changed and our talk of literature lead him to a compulsion to show me a “manuscript” he was working on — A 326-page document. Each page was stored on his phone by a photo of the handwritten, unlined sheets filled with barely legible yet surprisingly beautiful squiggles. I was flabbergasted. He said he wrote it in three days, that it had just “come to him” and he knew he was “meant to write those words.”
His name was Alejandro and he was a member of a construction crew working for me. There was this thirst for knowledge in him; it exuded from his pores. As enjoyable as his company may have been though, I must admit, I couldn’t help but wish he was more tired from a day of hard manual labor; I couldn’t help but wish he would settle, even if just a little. A hard day of labor like this would have tired Superman out.
But nothing seemed to slow Alejandro.
He was intense and he was genuine and he was…frightening. It was unsettling to see someone in such an uncontrolled and hyper state.
I have to admit, at this moment, I knew without a doubt that he was bipolar. As we got more personal in our conversation he described to me his bouts of depression in between weeks of insomnia, hyperactivity, and an exuberance of confidence. I frankly told him that he strongly presented as someone with a Bipolar disorder.
Now, I am no doctor, but having been immersed in the land of bipolar for most of my life, I can’t help but see it in certain people. I’m under no delusion I am an expert. I’m simply stating I get a deep gut feeling about some people — a feeling they struggle with their mental health.
And Alejandro? He told me he had never before that day felt comfortable enough in any situation to talk about his mental health. He always felt “different” than others, but he spoke of how the opportunities to discuss mental illness in Puerto Rico are few and far between. And to have them taken seriously? Essentially nonexistent.
So what does his behavior look like to many outsiders and what was he accused of by his fellow coworkers?
Yep, drug abuse.
Admittedly, to a certain extent the patterns of bipolar and some types of drug dependence do mimic each other, but to jump to the conclusion that he was a “crackhead” is out of line. It is ignorant at best.
For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic, some signs of stimulant abuse include “Feelings of exhilaration and excess confidence,” as well as depression as the drug wears off. This can appear to be much the same pattern as that of a person struggling with staying mentally balanced, from residing in one pole and then the other. Understandably, uncontrolled bipolar symptoms can appear as signs of drug dependence.
That doesn't make unfounded accusations and discrimination right. It’s partly situations like this which demonstrate just how important it is to continue the conversation of mental illness and health, to educate people. Often times, and much like Alejandro himself, people really just don’t know.
The following day the contractor, Dave, asked if he could speak with me. Having been out of town for a couple of days, he wanted to know how things had been going. To my surprise, he lead with
“Is Alejandro Bipolar?”
I was shocked. Not only was I startled by the blunt nature of his question, but also that Alejandro must have told him what I said. With further discussion, I learned that he wasn’t ashamed of what he called his “diagnosis.” No, instead he was proud of it. He was ecstatic to finally have some explanation for his mood pattern, some understanding of why he felt so “different” and he had openly discussed this with his boss the very day he returned to town.
While I would have never considered it my business, the way in which the questions were presented to me made me feel ok about telling Dave my opinion, so I admitted to thinking Alejandro had a mood disorder. In a way, I thought I was helping to dispel the rumor that he was on drugs — I was wrong.
The following day when the crew returned Alejandro was missing. Dave came to me, apologizing that I had to deal with “such a crazy person.” I of course defended Alejandro. I tried to explain what I meant by calling him bipolar, that I didn’t mean it as a negative attribute.
That was naivety at its finest.
I discovered that Dave had fired Alejandro because he didn’t want a “loon” on his crew despite the fact that he was clearly the hardest worker. Telling me this, it was clear Dave thought he was offering me some sort of relief; I felt only sorrow and regret. I wondered why he was okay with having someone he suspected to be abusing drugs on his crew but refused to have someone who was now unofficially considered to have a mental disorder.
I’m grateful for the community I have surrounded myself with. Though not without its hardships, I’ve been fortunate to find open arms in the mental health community, both online and on earth. In fact, the mental health community I am a part of may have actually served to Alejandro’s detriment in this case.
See, I was feeling so safe in my skin, so open with my often previously discarded emotions that I actually forgot about the mental health stigma. I actually forgot about this unnecessary but ever-present shield that stops so many from seeking and receiving good care when the concern stems from mental health. I forgot how harshly we are often judged for our particular struggles. I never would have imagined Alejandro would have lost his job over it.
Did I handle this well? No, not really. No, not at all. I wish I could go back and change things. As someone who considers herself a mental health advocate, I should know better. I should be able to carefully articulate the way conversations about mental health are framed so as to not run people away due to their lack of understanding or sensitivity.
Moving forward, I am going to work even harder to fight off this stigma and to help people feel safe discussing any and every one of their concerns because of this reminder of just how negatively the wrong label can affect a person, and because my big mouth got Alejandro fired.
Mother. Neuroscience, critical care, and home health registered nurse. Mental health combatant. Social justice seeker. Truth-teller. firstname.lastname@example.org